The Torah Scrolls on the Floor
Looking for drama on Saturday mornings?
Each Saturday morning during Shabbat services, no matter what city you live in or what flavor of observance a synagogue or temple may ascribe to, there is that moment of truth. The moment when the person given the honor of lifting the Torah, or hagbah, lifts the open Torah scroll above their heads, turns around for the congregation to see the letters, and then sits down in a chair where he is assisted by the galilah, the Torah dresser, who wraps the Torah, fastens it with a silken belt, places the cover back over the Eytz Chayim, or wooden posts, and adorns it with a silver breastplate depicting the twelve tribes of Israel. The galilah then replaces the silver pointer hand, or yad, and then finally the beautiful Keter, or crown, is placed atop the wooden posts.
Sometimes while lifting, the Hagbah shows three columns, sometimes, if they are really strong, four or five columns.
At this crucial moment in the Torah service, there is a certain element of danger in the air. We all rise as the Torah is lifted. Out of respect, yes, but also knowing that we are all in this together if the Torah lifter does not get it just right.
The suspense is especially stronger if we are at the beginning or end of the Torah cycle; when the Torah is scrolled way to the left or the right. For if the hagbah loses their grip or if their strength gives out, to drop a Torah scroll is a grievous mistake. To see the hagbah struggle or even tip slightly under the weight of the Torah elicit responses of gasps and “oh no’s” from the congregants and quick assists from the others on the bimah to steady the scroll from falling. And a feeling of relief and handshakes of “Kol Hakavod” after the Hagbah steps down from the bimah and returns to their seat in the congregation.
So serious of an offense, that on the rare occasion when a Torah scroll does fall to the ground, the offender must fast for 40 days. To reduce the severity of this consequence, oftentimes, a congregation will divide the 40 days to 40 congregants.
This is why so many are hesitant to perform the mitzvah of Hagbah for fear they might drop Judaism’s holiest possession.
Jews take the physical aspects of our holy books very seriously.
If you had an observant Jewish education, you were taught that our prayer books: our Siddurim, our Chumashim, were NEVER to be on the ground. If you do drop one, as kids often do, it is customary to give the book a kiss, because these books have Gd’s name in it. The same goes for our talit, or prayer shawls with the fringes that represent the Torah’s 613 commandments. None of these things should ever touch the ground out of pure respect.
When Torah scrolls and prayer books are so old and worn they can no longer be used, they, with prayer shawls, are buried in a Jewish cemetery.
In many synagogues, you may see a battered Torah scroll, or a fragment of it. Water stained. Singed. Enclosed in its own glass case or hanging in a frame.
These are known as the Holocaust Torahs, which the Nazis confiscated and kept in barns or stables, to one day be placed in a museum to show off how the Third Reich had thoroughly extermined the Jews from the face of the Earth.
So, when I woke Saturday morning to learn that some ….. thing, some thug, some subhuman walked into the Nessa Synagogue in Beverly Hills and trashed its insides.
And tore our prayer books. And threw our talit on the ground.
And threw and unraveled our precious Torah scrolls to the ground.
My heart and soul went into a state of mourning.
What the shock must have felt like to those early risers who were first to arrive for Shacharit services that morning.
Did they think they were in Beverly Hills?
Or 1930’s Berlin?
The image of a naked Torah scroll lying on the ground to a Jew is visceral.
What animal would do such a thing? What rhetoric or “free speech” did they hear to spurn on this act of hate?
So Jews.. what are we going to do about it?
Luckily, Chanukkah is coming.
Chanukkah. No, No, it is not the Jewish Christmas. So for Gd’s sake, stop competing with it like it is.
Just, on your debates on whether we should have a stupid Chanukkah bush or oh how cute Chanukkah Harry is and oh my kids feel so left out during Christmas…. so we make a big deal out of Chanukkah with presents and we get a bush….
For fuck’s sake. Just stop.
Chanukah means: Rededication.
It marks a time in OUR SHARED Jewish history when, in 164 BCE the greatly outnumbered Maccabees in three years defeated the Assyrian Greeks and liberated Jerusalem and when they got to the Temple on the Temple mount they found it to be completely trashed.
Pig’s blood and idols everywhere.
The altar smashed.
And they adjusted their energies from defeating their enemy to then rededicate the Temple and thus rededicate the Hellenised Jews in ancient Judea back to a Jewish way of living.
In the aftermath of the Nessah Synagogue desecration, which, even in this year where haters have defaced synagogues, beat up on Jews and most recently, even killed Jews in Jersey City, what Jews need to do now is find some strength. And Light.
Nessah, if I’m reading that correctly, in Hebrew means miracle.
During Chanukkah, we celebrate the miracle. Not about the oil lasting, but that the Jews had the strength to battle on.
We must battle on. Now is not the time to hide or shrink into the darkness.
That can mean speaking out against Jewish or anti-Zionist hatred from wherever or whoever is spewing it.
That can mean attending services or make a minyan for someone on mourning.
Or, it can mean celebrate Chanukkah for what it is.
Not a Jewish Christmas.
But a time to rededicate ourselves as Jews to our strong, proud, Jewish path.
Chanukkah: Why It’s so Important Right Now
This gallery contains 4 photos.
It’s not about presents or the number of Chanukkah songs there are compared with Christmas songs, or how a humble nine-branched candelabra can compete with a freshly pine-scented ornament adorned Christmas tree.
Chanukkah, the holiday that celebrates history’s first victory for religious freedom, is about not giving into tyranny. In any generation.
Oh Chanukkah, Oh Chanukkah … in Israel!
Here is a blog post on the furthest place I’ve traveled. The plane ride is noisy and crowded, but I’ve traveled there four times and I’ll do it again as soon as time and money permits. With the earliest chanukkah ever recorded in just two weeks, I thought this would be an appropriate post for this challenge:
I’ve spent all of my chanukkahs in America. As a Jewish kid, yes, the omnipotence of Christmas can test anyone’s Jewish identity and make even those with the strongest feel a bit left out. You can totally relate to Adam Sandler‘s song. You are that only kid on the block without a Christmas tree.
As I got older, I grew to understand that, yes, Chanukkah is a minor Jewish holiday. No, it’s not even in the Torah. Yes, Jews have our major holidays in the fall.
But, still, come December, you can’t help but feel a bit marginalized.
Except in Israel. Because there’s a whole country that is Jewish, just like you and me……
Chanukkah in Israel is the little things, like peeking into a Jerusalem apartment window to watch a mother lift her baby to see the chanukkah candles.
Chanukkah is big, as every corner on every street is decorated with Chanukkiot. No, not menorahs. A menorah is the seven-branched candelabra, and though it is the symbol of Israel, the chanukkia, the nine-branched candelabra, is for chanukkah:
Chanukkah in Israel is walking through the Western Wall Tunnels where Judah Maccabee and his army used to reclaim Jerusalem and the Temple from the Assyrian Greeks in 165 B.C.E.
Chanukkah in Israel is sufganiyot piled high in every bakery window.
Chanukkah in Israel is lighting the chanukkiah in the hotel lobbies amidst the glow of so many others:
Chanukkah in Israel is digging in a cave thought to be used by the Maccabees, where coins have been found with an insignia of Assyrian King Antiochus on them.
Most of all, Chanukkah is filled with smiling kids:
A Small Chanukkah Miracle at Checkout Aisle Number Eight
“Are you doing anything special this Hanukkah?”
I guess Steve the check-out cashier figured out I was Jewish. After all, from my grocery cart, I unloaded a bag of potatoes, onions, some Chanukkah napkins, blue and white M&Ms and a box of beeswax candles.
“Not much,” I replied. “Just going to my son’s band concert tonight, and then down to New York City for a family occasion.” I didn’t want to say it was for a Bat Mitzvah. That’s just too complicated if you don’t know what a Bat Mitzvah is.
“Ooooh, New York City! That’s where they seriously get into Chanukkah! I mean, the big menorah displays, and the food — the matzah ball soup! Even in the diners, they make French toast out of challah down in New York City,” he went on.
Now, you don’t have to be Jewish to love matzah ball soup or challah French toast. And, I am pretty sure, you can get challah French toast up here in Rochester.
But the sentimentality in his voice towards matzah ball soup, the way he so dreamily spoke of the menorahs as he scanned my clementines and sweet Mayan onions, I had to ask:
“Um, are you Jewish?”
Now, this is not a question I would ask a complete stranger. But around this time of year, when the enormity of Christmas seeps into every crevice of the American landscape, Jews have this desire to connect to one other, to stick together. Judaism as a topic of conversation is a subject that would be avoided by the most disenfranchised, unaffiliated Jew for most of the year. But talking about one’s Jewish identity in the face of Christmastime, is, like a plate of freshly fried potato latkes, on the table and up for grabs.
At any other time of year, a suburban housewife and a 20something college kid working in a grocery store wouldn’t openly discuss being Jewish. But that night, right before the lighting of the first Chanukkah candle, amidst the Christmas Muzak playing and the Christmas tree displays twinkling, it felt like the right time.
As he carefully bagged my groceries with the expertise only possessed by a Wegmans employee, Steven continued to tell me his plans for the Festival of Lights.
“Yeah, there’s this Chanukkah celebration thing going on at the University of Rochester tonight. From – you know – Hillel? I think I might check it out. I haven’t gone to many Hillel events, but I think I should check it out.”
“Good for you!” I replied. This did my heart good. I told him that I worked for the Hillel – the organization that supports Jewish life on college campuses around the world – a number of years back. With so many negative statistics out there pointing out the demise of Jewish practice among today’s young American Jews, Steven telling me of his plans to do something Jewish, to be with other Jews that night, just made me feel all warm inside.
Chanukkah is such a small holiday in importance on the Jewish calendar. But it celebrates something so big – the world’s first fight for religious freedom. It was the first time a people – though meek and small – said NO to an occupying power. Judah Maccabee and his brothers were the first who had the chutzpah — the balls, if you will — to say, NO! We will not stop being Jewish. We will not stop teaching our children how to be Jewish. You can put up statues of your idols, you can outlaw Jewish practice, you can threaten us, but we will survive.
And survive we did, and we have, in spite of history. And in spite of the dreary outlook for the American Jewish landscape, Steven, the college kid who worked at Wegmans, was going to go out of his way to celebrate Chanukkah, to celebrate being Jewish.
Happy Chanukkah to Steven and to all who celebrate freedom.